Sight and Sound, Nr. 2 1998

The Atlantic Ocean, the present day. Brock Lovett explores the Titanic wreck, secretly looking for a famous diamond, the Heart of the Ocean, fabled to have sunk with the ship. In a safe, he finds a sketch of a young woman. After the discovery is reported, an elderly woman named Rose contacts him, explaining that she is the woman depicted and that she knows he's looking for the diamond. She is airlifted to the ship, where she relates her experience of the disaster.

1912 . The Titanic is boarded by the  young Rose, her mother and her wealthy fiancé, Cal. Jack, an artist, wins his steerage passage in a poker game. That  evening, Rose almost throws herself over the rail but lack talks her out of it. Cal promises to give Rose the Heart of the Ocean diamond. Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line, demands the ship go faster. The next day, Rose confesses her unhappiness to Jack. He dines with the first-class passengers, then invites Rose to a party in steerage. She asks him to draw her in the nude and leaves the sketch in Cal's safe. The two lovers flee, pursued by Cal's valet, Lovejoy. They make love in a car in storage. The lookouts sight an iceberg, but attempts to evade it fail and it collides with the ship.

Rose and lack are captured, and Lovejoy plants the diamond on Jack, who is arrested and handcuffed to a pipe. Andrews, the ship's designer, tells the Captain that the ship will sink. The crew distributes lifejackets and begins loading the inadequate number of lifeboats with women and children. Panic ensues. Rose rescues lack. Cal bribes and lies his way onto a lifeboat. The ship breaks in half, and sinks entirely. Jack and Rose find some driftwood that will only support Rose. She is rescued after he dies from the cold, and once ashore she hides from Cal, changing her name.

Back in the present, the elderly Rose sneaks up to the deck and tosses the Heart of the Ocean diamond overboard. She dies and joins Jack and the other deceased crew and passengers of the Titanic. James Cameron (Terminator) heads for oldfashioned Hollywood epic territory with Titanic, reputedly the most expensive film ever made. Using computer-generated imagery, he succeeds at capturing the visceral terror and awe of the legendary maritime disaster. The minutes when the ship splits in half, its stern tilts upward, exposing its enormous propellers, and the desperate passengers cling to the suddenly perpendicular deck or plummet from its heights into the icy water are particularly effective. Likewise, Cameron is in his element during the crisp action sequences of the film's second half, in which the characters race through rapidly flooding passages and make several narrow escapes from drowning. Titanic is ostentatious in its fidelity to the material aspects of its subject, presenting in detail the handsome staterooms, decks and swankily appointed first-class atrium with its famous staircase. Many of the establishing shots have an air of the guided tour about them, carefully displaying a production design so meticulously created that it has won the approval of minutia-obsessed Titanic buffs - no small feat. Cameron even commissioned his own underwater footage of the wreck. Nevertheless, Titanic rarely feels like anything more than the most impressive movie money can buy. What grandeur and pathos the film possesses belong to the mythic story of the shipwreck itself, a fantastic confluence of history and the stuff that ballads are made from (as well as several films already, including A Night to Remember of
1958). Cameron adds precisely nothing to the sum if you calculate his many gaffes against his commitment to a strict, methodical standard of authenticity.
And even that standard disintegrates when it comes to Cameron's own screenplay, a vulgar, cliché-ridden, anachronistic effort that entirely fails to capture the rigidly stratified manners of the era, despite Cameron's apparent interest in class relations. In fact, what Jack, Rose and Cal most resemble are the teens in John Hughes' high-school dramas of the 8os in which noble, if brash, poor boys win the prettiest girls in class away from arrogant, bullying football stars. Having Rose drop vapid references to Picasso and Freud, and jack reel off a list of stock bohemian adventures (drawing nude prostitutes in Paris, working a shrimp boat in Monterey) only compound the aura of phoniness.

Cameron's appealing young leads do struggle to bring vigour to their thin, cartoonish characters. Winslet often looks stiff and lost, as if affronted by her lines. While
DiCaprio mostly just coasts on his insouciant movie-star charm, he's still a bit too unripe to make a convincing leading man. It's only in the minor characters - Victor Garber as the ship's architect Thomas Andrews, the musicians who go on playing as the ship sinks beneath them and Bernard Hill as the Titanic's doomed captain - that the film offers us individuals as interesting as their fate. Not surprisingly, they are substantially based on actual people, and not the products of Cameron's limited powers of dramatic invention. While the film's first half, focused as it is on Rose and Jack's budding romance and the nastiness of Cal (who lacks only a handlebar moustache to twirl), seems overlong, Titanic is more crude than inept. The movie works as a simple-minded entertainment that provides a setting for spectacular visual effects, and many audiences will find it adequately enjoyable.
That everything about Titanic- from its stereotyped characters to its bright, even lighting- feels ersatz and obvious may only trouble the kind of people who dislike the immaculate, synthetic recreations of real places in Disney theme parks. Not everyone who sees Titanic will yearn for the movie it might have been had it been made by a filmmaker with imagination, and intelligence, rather than just raw ambition, but those who do will find it littered with missed opportunities as well as demonstrations of conspicuous spending. There were many complex and fascinating grown-ups aboard the Titanic, and several dozen true stories more compelling than Jack and Rose's teenage love. And there are deep veins of tragedy and mystery in the tale of the star-crossed ship that James Cameron hasn't the sensitivity to tap. 

Laura Miller